So we’re back after a bit of an extended summer break and we’re still in the City of London. Today’s expedition is all about the streets that radiate eastward from the Bank tube station junction, Threadneedle Street, Cornhill, Lombard Street and King William Street but also extends north up to Moorgate and London Wall. Might not look like a very wide area on paper but on pavement, once you’ve added in all the courts and alleyways, there’s a fair bit of shoe leather laid to rest. Highlights en route today include the Bank of England and the Royal Exchange along with the inevitable Wren churches and a couple more of those Livery Companies.
I’ve referenced it fleetingly in previous posts but for this outing I’m going to delve into this a bit more extensively as a source for the commentary (I don’t know the exact year of publication but it was some time in the 1930’s). Direct extracts will appear in italics.
We begin today from Bank underground station from where exit 1 leads us up to Princes Street heading northward. Set back from the west side of Princes Street is Grocers’ Hall, home to The Grocers’ Company, another of the original Twelve Great Livery Companies and proudly ensconced at no.2 in the Order of Precedence (appropriately in a “Nation of Shopkeepers”). This mob started out as the Ancient Guild of Pepperers as far back as 1100 then in the 14th century founded a new fraternity of spice traders in the City of London which came to be known as the Company of Grossers. It took them three years before they realised that this might cause a few sniggers come the 21st century and changed it to Grocers in 1376. They received their Royal Charter from Henry VI in 1428. The current hall, the fifth, was built in 1970, its predecessor having survived WW2 only to be burnt down in 1965 reportedly due to a poorly situated lightbulb being left on in a cupboard.
At the top of Princes Street we turn right into Lothbury and proceed along the back of the Bank of England where there is a statue of Sir John Soane (whose wonderful museum we visited on a previous excursion), architect and surveyor to the Bank from 1788 to 1833 during which time it doubled in size to 3.5 acres. It first moved to this site between Threadneedle Street and Lothbury in 1734, having previously leased the Grocers’ Hall (see above) from 1695, the year following its foundation. When the Bank was rebuilt between 1925 and 1939 by Sir Herbert Baker, the outer walls erected by Soane in 1828 were retained while all the interior buildings were demolished. Regarding these walls it will be observed that, for the purposes of security, they are completely windowless, all the rooms being lighted from interior courts; but even a Raffles who succeeded in passing this barrier would be baffled at the extraordinary series of defences surrounding the vaults, which include concentric walls of steel and concrete between which armed guards patrol day and night.
On the other side of Lothbury stands St Margaret’s Church, the first of a number of post-Great Fire Christopher Wren rebuilding jobs we’ll encounter today.
Right next door to the church is 7 Lothbury, built in 1868 and designed in a Venetian Gothic style by architect George Somers Clarke (1825 – 1882) as a head office for the General Credit and Discount Company. In the 1960’s it was taken over by the Overseas Bankers’ Club but despite a Grade II listing had fallen into disrepair by the early 21st century. It has now been converted for residential use.
Turn left next up Tokenhouse Yard then left again along King’s Arms Yard to Moorgate. Across the street is another Grade II listed building, Basildon House, which dates from the late 1800s and is in a Baroque style with Grecian details.
Head north a short way then look in on Great Bell Alley on the westside before crossing back over and proceeding east down Telegraph Street. Loop round Whalebone Court and Copthall Court into Copthall Avenue and after a few paces north turn west again along Great Swan Alley. This is the site of the headquarters of the Institute of Chartered Accountants, though technically the address is no.1 Moorgate Place which is about half way along the street. Chartered Accountants’ Hall was built between 1890 and 1893 and is another Victorian neo-Baroque job courtesy of architect John Belcher. The façade on Great Swan Alley is part of an extension to the original building completed in 1930-31. In 1964-70 a much more extensive redevelopment was undertaken which included the creation of a Great Hall with five stories of office space above it. The ICAEW was granted a royal charter in 1880 and today has over 147,000 members. Presumably that’s one of them in the photo below (no not the guy the yellow jacket – he looks more like a Certified Accountant).
After this it’s back to Moorgate and a continuation northward up to London Wall where we turn east and then head south once more all the way down Copthall Avenue. Swing round to the east and head up and back down the top section of Throgmorton Avenue with just a cursory glance at the Carpenters’ Hall – royal charter granted in 1477 and no.26 in order of precedence. Return along Copthall Avenue and then stroll down Angel Court to Throgmorton Street. Turn right a short distance to arrive at Bartholomew Lane which skirts the east flank of the Bank of England and houses the entrance to the museum. The Bank of England museum has two main things going for it; one it’s free and two it’s not that big. This does mean it can get quite crowded but it’s worth putting up with that.
The Bank was the brainchild of Scottish entrepreneur William Paterson (1658 – 1719). The aim was to provide a secure and continuous loan to the nation (at a healthy profit of course). Public subscriptions raised £1.2 million in a few weeks, which formed the initial capital stock of the Bank of England and was lent to Government in return for a Royal Charter. The Royal Charter was sealed on 27 July 1694, and the Bank started its role as the Government’s banker and debt manager. I’m not going to write at length about the history of the Bank but it does make for interesting reading so it’s worth clicking on the link.
Just a bit about the gold held by the Bank to finish off with – as I know that’s what you’re really interested in. The Bank itself only owns two of the gold bars in its vaults (one of which is actually on display in the museum). The rest are stored on behalf of HM Treasury, other central banks and some commercial firms. As of April 2017 the vaults held a total of 164.7 million Fine Troy Ounces of gold (about 5.1m kg or c.400,000 gold bars). Gold is currently trading at around £1,000 an ounce so I guess you can just about do the math as they say.
After leaving the museum we return to Bank station along Threadneedle Street. The Bank has of course long been known colloquially as “the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street”.
Across the street from the Bank, in the angle of Threadneedle Street and Cornhill, is the Royal Exchange, founded by Sir Thomas Gresham (1519 – 1579) in 1566 as London’s first purpose built centre for trading stocks and commodities. The first exchange, opened by Queen Elizabeth I in 1871, came to grief in the Great Fire and its successor also burnt down in 1838. The present building, designed by Sir William Tite and inspired by the Pantheon in Rome, was opened by Queen Victoria in 1844. After WW2, during which the building was damaged, the traders moved out and the building fell into disuse until the 1980s’ when it was repaired and taken over by LIFFE (the London International Financial Futures Exchange). By the turn of the millennium LIFFE had also moved on and the building was extensively remodelled to transform it into a luxury shopping and dining destination. In front of the building stands a memorial, designed by Sir Aston Webb, to London troops who fell in the Great War. Close by is an equestrian statue of the Duke of Wellington (riding without stirrups) by Chantrey cast from bronze from captured enemy cannons in 1844 . Historically the steps of the Royal Exchange have been one of the places from which the accession of a new monarch is proclaimed. It remains to be seen if this tradition is maintained.
Walk through the Royal Exchange, without pausing to sample the fine dining though I did have a look in the Paul Smith sample store. Outside the eastern entrance on Royal Exchange Buildings are statues to George Peabody, founder of the Peabody Trust (several of whose housing estates we have encountered on previous journeys – and which look more and more like exemplary models of social housing with the passage of time) and Paul Julius Reuter, founder of the eponymous News Agency which had its first home nearby.
East of the Peabody statue, at the entrance to Royal Exchange Avenue, is a former drinking fountain dating to 1878 adorned by a sculpture entitled La Maternité by Jules Dalou (this was originally in marble but that weathered badly and so was replaced by a bronze copy in 1897). This was partly paid for by the Merchant Taylors’ Company, whose hall is just round the corner but falls into one of today’s blind spots. So the Livery Company which is either 6th or 7th on the OOP (they alternate each year with the Skinners) miss out on their write up.
Walk down Royal Exchange Avenue into Finch Lane, turn south down to Cornhill and then head back towards Bank. In the middle of Cornhill is a statue of James Henry Greathead (1844 – 1896), a Civil Engineer who was instrumental in the creation of the London Underground and patented a number of inventions that facilitated the tunnelling operations. The statue was erected in 1994 and is positioned on a plinth which hides a ventilation shaft for the Underground.
Just a little way further back no. 24 Cornhill (now a cocktail bar and restaurant) has a Grade II listed façade designed by that man Sir Aston Webb (1849 – 1930) again. Webb’s most famous works are the façade of Buckingham Palace and the main V&A building.
As we approach Bank station once more the Mansion House hoves into view. We pretty much circumvented this last time out so for the sake of completeness here are a few 80 year-old snippets about this official residence of the Lord Mayor of the City of London. It was built between 1739 and 1753, mainly, it is said from fines levied on stalwart Nonconformists. It has a fine Corinthian portico from the platform of which official announcements are often made. The chief room is the Egyptian Hall where the somewhat lavish hospitality expected from London’s chief citizen is exercised. The Lord Mayor receives a salary of £10,000 a year, but if rumour speaks correctly he is generally out of pocket at the end of his year of office.
Just before we reach the Bank intersection we cut down Pope’s Head Alley to Lombard Street then turn right to where this apexes with King William Street. Here stands the church of St Mary Woolnoth, which surprise. surprise is not part of the Christopher Wren portfolio but one of the Queen Anne churches designed by that other great ecclesiastical architect, Nicholas Hawksmoor. Today the church is used by London’s German-speaking Swiss community and doubles up as the official London church of the government of British Columbia (why that is even a thing heaven knows).
Next up we switch between Lombard Street and King William Street for a while courtesy of Post Office Court, Abchurch Lane, Nicholas Passage and Nicholas Lane before we find ourselves heading south down Clement’s Lane at the bottom of which is the decidedly underwhelming St Clement’s Church (of “Oranges and Lemons” say fame). Clement was a disciple of Saint Peter and was ordained as Bishop of Rome in AD 93. Legend has it that his was martyred by being tied to an anchor and thrown into the Black Sea, hence his status as patron saint of sailors. The church is currently home to the administrative offices of the human rights’ charity the Amos Trust. So in lieu of shots of the interior here’s a reflection of the day.
Back on King William Street we turn east and swing round past House of Fraser into Gracechurch Street. Continue north before turning west down Lombard Court and then cutting up Plough Court to return to Lombard Street. To the left here is the Church of St Edmund King & Martyr, reconstructed to a design of Wren incorporating a tower ornamented at the angles by flaming urns in allusion to the Great Fire that destroyed the medieval church.
Across the street the entrance to the Royal Insurance Building is guarded by this bronze sculpture of three “allegorical” female figures – the lady on the left holds an anchor to represent the power of the sea, the one on the right a flaming torch to represent, well, fire and the sphinx in the centre (according to some sources) signifies the uncertainty of the future. The work is by Francis William Doyle Jones (1873 – 1938) and is entitled, with commendable literalness, Chimera with Personifications of Fire and the Sea.
We double back a short distance and then proceed north into George Yard as far as the George & Vulture pub. This self-proclaimed Old Pickwickian Hostelrie dates from 1748 and is reputed to have been one of the meeting places of the notorious Hell-Fire Club. Dickens was a regular punter and the inn is mentioned at least 20 times in The Pickwick Papers.
Just before the pub we turn left down Bengal Court then cross Birchin Lane and follow Cowpers Court back to Cornhill. Turn eastward here as far as Ball Court on the south side which doglegs round to St Michael’s Alley where, opposite the George & Vulture is another legendary City drinking-hall, The Jamaica Wine House. Known locally as “the Jampot” this was originally the first coffee house in London, opening in 1652 and counting Samuel Pepys amongst its clientele.
Taking St Michael’s Alley back to Cornhill we reach St Michael’s Church rebuilt by Wren after the Fire and restored by Sir G.G. Scott. It has a fine Gothic tower, modelled on Magdalen Tower, Oxford and a pulpit carved by Grinling Gibbons. The organ of St Peter’s Church, almost next door, was played several times by Mendelssohn and in the vestry his autograph is treasured. The church was founded, according to an ancient tablet in the vestry, by “Lucius, the first Christian king of this land called Britaine”. Many remains of Roman London have been discovered hereabouts and many authorities place here the site of the Roman forum.
Beginning with St Peter’s Alley we trace a double loop southward additionally involving Corbet Court, St Michael’s Alley again (this is at least three alleys for the price of one) and Bell Inn Yard. That brings us back to Gracechurch Street where we drop further south to Lombard Street and then proceed west to Birchin Lane which takes us north again. After a quick detour exploring the labyrinth that is Change Alley we resume northward, crossing over Cornhill into Finch Lane then over Threadneedle Street into Old Broad Street. Almost immediately veer left down Threadneedle Walk to return to Throgmorton Street generally crowded by bare-headed individuals of varying degrees of frivolity, whose presence betrays the whereabouts of that important institution, the Stock Exchange in Capel Court. The Stock Exchange referred to is the one that was created in 1801 as the first purpose-built and regulated “Subscription Room” for brokers to ply their trade. Prior to that they had gravitated away from the Royal Exchange to conduct their business in the coffee-houses of Change Alley and beyond. Capel Court no longer exists as such; in 1972 a new Stock Exchange Tower was opened on Old Broad Street and the original site redeveloped. However, come the ‘Big Bang’ and the introduction of electronic trading in 1986, the Tower became something of a white elephant and when an IRA bomb blew a whole in the 26-storey building four years later the writing was firmly on the wall. It closed permanently in 1992 and it was another 20 years before this unloved totem of the “Brutalist” era was stripped back to its core and redeveloped as a 21st century glass-clad monolith. In 2004 the London Stock Exchange eventually found a new home in Paternoster Square. Coincidentally the company I worked for made the same journey from Old Broad Street the same year.
Bit of a digression there but back to Throgmorton Street and the Drapers’ Hall. The first hall here was bought from King Henry VIII in 1543 for the sum of 1,800 marks (c.£1,200) and had previously been the home of Thomas Cromwell (up until his execution in 1840). The hall was rebuilt after the Great Fire and again in 1772 after another fire. In the 1860’s the frontage and the interior were redesigned by Herbert Williams. Further changes at the end of the 19th century included the creation of the two Atlantes (male equivalents of Caryatids); turbaned and muscular Djinns that guard either side of the entrance. These are believed to be the work of sculptor H.A Pegram (1862 – 1937).
The full title of the Drapers’ Company is “The Master and Wardens and Brethren and Sisters of the Guild or Fraternity of the Blessed Mary the Virgin of the Mystery of Drapers of the City of London”. The word Mystery comes from the Latin “misterium” meaning professional skill. You wouldn’t get away with that if you were much lower than no.3 on the Order of Precedence. We follow Drapers’ Hall and its gardens all the way up Throgmorton Avenue to where it joins Copthall Avenue.
There is a bit more to come but since we’ve just about breached the 3,000 word barrier we’ll continue from this juncture next time.